Is the Bullpen Mightier?

Kevin C. Cox

Can the Braves keep the string of bullpen success going?

Braves Bullpen 2013: 1st in ERA, 1st in FIP (MLB)

Braves Bullpen 2012: 2nd in ERA, 2nd in FIP

Braves Bullpen 2011: 1st in ERA, 1st in FIP

Braves Bullpen 2010: 3rd in ERA, 2nd in FIP

Braves Bullpen 2009: 6th in ERA, 2nd in FIP

That's pretty good, I think. For the past 5 seasons, the Braves have been the exemplar of bullpen construction. Consistently maintaining an elite bullpen is exceedingly difficult due to the volatility of bullpen performances, but the Braves have been able to continually put together elite bullpens. Some of it is having Billy Wagner, and a large part of it was netting Craig Kimbrel in the draft. But the Braves have made other notably shrewd moves like claiming Eric O'Flaherty, Cristhian Martinez, and David Carpenter off waivers and getting Jordan Walden in a trade.

The best part about all of that is how cheaply the Braves have done it. Billy Wagner cost a pretty penny and a 1st round pick, but he was magical in his season here. But otherwise, the Braves have built these bullpens cheaply, combining the best of a high degree of talent at low risk. Knowing the volatility of bullpens, this is simply excellent. Bullpens won't win you a division, but they sure can lose it - bullpens have a tiny ceiling due to the limited number of innings, but there is no floor for how bad they can be.

Heading into 2014 and like with all other parts of the team, we have to ... let's all say it together ... ask if it's sustainable.

We don't need to spend too much time on Craig Kimbrel. He's the best reliever in the sport, and as long as he's healthy, he's basically guaranteed an ERA below 3 and an ERA of 2 or lower isn't out of the question.

Jordan Walden is a more difficult proposition. His last two seasons have been cut short by injury, but he's had excellent peripherals when healthy. Even when he lost the closer's spot in 2012 in LA, his peripherals were still solid. The hopping righty keeps a K rate in the high 20s, and a walk rate around 10% will work. Walden lowered it in 2013 to around 7%, but I don't know how sustainable that is. I'd bet closer to 10% in 2014, but he's still a fantastic guy to have around.

David Carpenter was the real surprise last season. Relegated to mop-up duty early in the year, Carpenter was nailing down the late innings down the stretch and in the playoffs. Claiming him off waivers was magnificent as Carpenter's K rate rose to 29% and his BB rate dropped to 8% (around 10% before that), and for those scoring at home, that's what you want to see pitchers do. How sustainable is that? I'm not going overboard, but something in the middle of that and his career seems plausible, which puts his FIP around 3 - his 2.83 FIP indicates he was very good but not 1.78 good.

Luis Avilan is the other main cog in the bullpen, and his projection is less rosy. After a stellar 2012, Avilan's peripherals seriously declined - K rate dropped from 23% to 15%, and the BB rate rose from 7% to 9%. This is the point of caution for relievers like Avilan and even Carpenter - peripherals can indicate the results were legit, but they can't guarantee they'll occur in the future. There are simply too few innings. Avilan's ability to get grounders and avoid HRs keeps him valuable while he's cheap, and we'll hope for something closer to his career marks - 3.02 FIP - than more decline.

The other 3 slots are really up for grabs. Jonny Venters won't be healthy until the summer, and I wouldn't guarantee anything to Cory Gearrin, Anthony Varvaro, or any of the like 20 prospect relievers on the 40-man. David Hale probably has the best shot of the relievers vying for a spot, and I'm excited about deploying him full-time out of the 'pen - this, of course, barring him moving into the rotation, which I don't really expect. Like with the rotation, the Braves have the pieces to have a solid bullpen without outside additions, but are there any the Braves could look at?

Figuring out what happened to Mitchell Boggs would be an interesting endeavor. Not sure I'd pay real money for him - FIPs were in the mid-3s before last season, which isn't great for a reliever - but he'd be a nice 6th or 7th guy in the 'pen.

Put John Axford in the same category. His peripherals aren't bad, but two straight years of high LD% and HR rates are a bit scary.

I'll probably always be interested in Henry Rodriguez. He throws the $#!t out of the ball, and there's a ton of potential there. Maybe McDowell fixes him like he's done with others?

Matt Thornton is a name that might pop up for left-handed relief. His peripherals aren't great, but he still throws hard (94 mph) and has a track record. Again, don't go crazy, but it's an option.

Boone Logan would be fun to re-add to the bullpen. While the FIPs and HR rates haven't been kind to him, the K and BB rates are better than that. He's good against lefties, but he's not Death.

And then there's Ryan Madson, who hasn't really pitched in two years. If the medicals check out, he could be a huge addition to the bullpen, but that's not something we can really know. But I'd at least check in.

Finally, there's Eric O'Flaherty who has been rumored as coming back. Never assume anything until the papers are signed and approved by the Commissioner, but there's always been reason to think Atlanta could get him back - give him incentive-laden deal, Atlanta knows the medicals, comfortable environment to rebuild value, and the need from the team's perspective of O'Flaherty's talents.

And there are always possible waiver claims to be made, but we won't know those until they arrive.

The Braves certainly don't need to add anyone to the bullpen. They have some very good arms for the back-end of the bullpen, and there are enough solid options on the 40-man and in the minors - *cough* Shae Simmons *cough*. But the Braves could also use a little depth, and I expect a lefty reliever of some sort to be added in order to avoid having to use Ryan Buchter as a second lefty. There are some "better" options available that I didn't mention - Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, etc. - but many of them I expect to earn more than the Braves should probably be willing to spend.

60-70 innings is a gamble usually not worth spending large amounts of money on, and as pretty much every multi-year deal for relievers has shown, it's often somewhat catastrophic.

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